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Break your heart of darkness

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The horror, the horror.”These famous final words from Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novella “Heart of Darkness” are some of the most misunderstood and misquoted in history. In light of multiple appalling human tragedies in contemporary African history genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Congo and apartheid in South Africa to name a few, we have come to see the horror as synonymous with African barbarity. Yet, this mistake is not only a gross misreading of Conrad, but symptomatic of a naive, racist world vision.

Conrad’s novella is the story of a savvy businessman who, upon entering colonial Africa, turns into a cannibalistic, violent dictator who adorns his home with severed black heads. It is a horrific tale based on the savage colonialism that Conrad himself witnessed in the Congo region. On one level, it shows the monstrous capacity that lies within all of us, placed in certain circumstances, to enslave, exploit and kill. On another level, it is a narrative of the brutal structures of colonialism that continue to haunt the African continent.

I now find myself upon that very continent, braving stifling heat and less-than-reliable Internet cafes to write this column. I am in Kampala, Uganda, studying development studies and the Lugandan language at Makerere University. I am studying here through the School for International Training, an academic institution that believes in global exchange to build cross-cultural competencies.

When most of us think about Africa, we are restricted to the headlines and short stories that occasionally grace the mainstream Western media. As a result, we know Africa as a place of wars, genocides, AIDS, diseases, corruption and perhaps exotic wildlife. Even such stories, however, take a backseat to more important news like the Michael Jackson trial.

There are two great dangers with limiting our knowledge of Africa to 30-second clips on CNN or 500-word New York Times articles. The first is that we miss the humanity that lives, loves, dreams, fears and works on this continent a people of complex religions, cultures, traditions, social norms, economic and political systems. The second is that we lump the whole continent a massive land of more than fifty nations, hundreds of ethnicities and thousands of languages together as one unit.

In just three weeks, I have found the people of Kampala to be a people of friendliness, vitality, innovation and education. In terms of education, it has been amazing to hear how much Ugandans know about world affairs, especially those of the United States. One man explained the American electoral college system to me better than any Notre Dame political science professor. It is eye opening to realize how much the rest of the world knows about and is impacted by the slightest decisions in Washington.

Uganda itself is a fascinating East African country, called the “pearl of Africa” by the late Winston Churchill. It is made up of more than 50 ethnic tribes, consolidated violently by their British colonizers at the end of the 19th century. The country has three main religious groups – Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. Uganda received independence in 1962, followed by two tragic decades of civil strife and authoritarian dictatorships. In the last two decades, there has been peace and economic growth in the south, while an ugly, deadly civil conflict has raged in the northern regions. Dealing with that conflict, massive poverty and constitutional issues, the people of Uganda face an uncertain future.

While it is important not to brood simply on the problems facing African communities, it is equally important to not ignore them. The challenge however is to place these problems in their appropriate context, especially given influential historical processes. In the case of Africa, the vicious legacy of colonialism continues to destroy communities. Corrupt, inept governments of nepotism and authoritarianism arose from the colonial experience. The imposition of arbitrary borders has perpetuated civil conflicts, many of which have and will approach genocide. The dependency dynamic of colonialism continues to affect people, embedding systems of poverty, inequality and xenophobia.

Today, forces of neo-colonialism compound the horrific legacy of colonialism. Such forces include unfair trade agreements from the West that create greater inequality between nations. Further, the Bretton Woods institutions IMF, World Bank and WTO promote liberalizing structural adjustment programs that foster inequity, disable state social welfare mechanisms and push many countries deep into the abyss of debt. In many cases, humanitarian and other organizations, consciously or not, are promoting structures of “dependency” that entrench colonial attitudes and norms.

Certainly much more could be written about the challenges and opportunities facing modern Africa, not to mention those facing each country and community. In forthcoming columns this semester, I intend to explore some of these challenges and opportunities, especially in the case of Uganda.

The challenge for all of us is to overcome our preconceived and ignorant generalizations about people from different lands and backgrounds. Throughout much of the world, the United States is increasingly becoming alienated from the rest of the world community, which perceives post-Sept. 11 U.S. foreign policy as an imposing hegemonic force. So much good would come from a commitment to listening to and learning from the rest of the world. In doing so, we would not only heal countless global wounds, but break our hearts of darkness that continue to assent to a world of division, injustice and mass suffering.

Peter Quaranto is a junior peace studies and political science major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda, where he is studying this semester at Makerere University. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.